The Concrete Church

First published 1994, revised 2011 by Richard Lines

One of the more unusual buildings in the Norwood area is the former New Church (Swedenborgian) in Waldegrave Road, just off Anerley Hill and a short walk from Crystal Palace Station. Now skilfully converted into a block of flats called “New Church Court”, the building was used for religious worship for over a hundred years. Completed in 1883, it is of particular interest as one of the earliest buildings erected in mass-concrete. From the middle of the last century improvements in the manufacture of Portland cement allowed concrete to be exposed externally without the need for brick or stucco facing.

The architect was W.E. Henley, manager of the Concrete Building Company. The building is mentioned in Cherry and Pevsner’s “The Buildings of England: London 2 South” (1983) where the authors remark that the workmanship appears to have been meticulous. Another description of the church suggests that the honeycombed surface of the concrete is due to the fact that it was once smothered in ivy! The walls are two feet thick and the design is elaborate with pinnacled twin turrets flanking a wide-arched entrance above which is a rose window. There are mullions, deeply incised horizontal mouldings and dog-tooth embellishments, all cast in the same terracotta-coloured concrete.

This extraordinary church was the subject of a feature article by John Chisholm in the “Daily Telegraph” on Saturday 8 January 1972 entitled “Concrete in Sunday Best”. He described the building as a “freak” and as “self-assured and vulgar”. He thought that those responsible for its construction must have been totally uninhibited! It bore some comparison with the famous concrete folly, Peterson’s Tower at Sway in Hampshire, which dates from the same period. Looking at the belfry towers, he even saw faint echoes of the work of Gaudi, the great Catalan architect.

How did such a church come to be built, who were the people who worshipped there and what were their beliefs? Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), who gets a mention in most encyclopaedias, was a Swedish nobleman, scientist, scholar, visionary and religious teacher. He died in London and his name is commemorated by Swedenborg Gardens in Wapping, now a public open space, which stands on the site of the old Swedish Church in which he was buried, and by Swedenborg House, the headquarters of the Swedenborg Society in Bloomsbury. This is not the occasion to elaborate on Swedenborg’s religious teachings, but suffice it to say that he taught that by the eighteenth century the Christian Church in all its denominations was exhausted and that a new revelation was at hand. Insisting that God is love, Swedenborg swept away all those harsh doctrines which condemned un-baptised babies and the whole of the non-Christian world to the flames of Hell. His vision of the afterlife, his notion of “conjugial love” (or the true marriage union of souls) and the idea that the natural world “corresponds” to a higher spiritual reality have penetrated through literature. In English literature the poetry of Blake, the Brownings and Tennyson in particular is suffused with Swedenborg’s ideas.

Although Swedenborg never sought to found a new religious denomination, about fifteen years after his death a number of people in London who accepted his teachings started the “New Church”. The name comes from the New Jerusalem described at the end of the Book of Revelation. To this day there are a number of New Church bodies around the world (mainly but not exclusively in English-speaking countries), although the number of adherents has never been large.

By 1880 there was a well-established organisation in this country and sufficient interest was shown in this district to enable the establishment in March 1881 of an “Anerley Society of the New Church” with seven trustees appointed to hold property. One of them, a Mr Wilson, donated land with a 60-foot frontage on Waldegrave Road. The original plan was to build a modest-sized church for a sum not exceeding £1,200. This sum and more was raised, but it was felt that the church would lack depth and Mr. Wilson offered a longer frontage freehold for £100. Thus, a large church capable of seating 450 people came to be built at a cost of over £4,000!

The early years were ones of struggle to make ends meet as the fledgling society was saddled with a large debt. During the late 1880’s Charles Spurgeon, the famous Baptist preacher (who lived at ”Westwood” on the site of the present Westwood School off Beulah Hill), offered to rent the church for three years with an option to purchase the freehold. Although this offer was turned down by the trustees, they were so hard-pressed ten years later that they were willing to sell the building to the Church of England for £3,000, including fixtures and fittings. An offer was made, but it was not sufficient and in the event the church building remained in the hands of the New Church.

Things took a turn for the better in the early years of this century under the pastorate of the Rev. Isaiah Tansley. During his eleven-year ministry the membership increased and, thanks to legacies, the building loan was repaid. Mr Tansley, who lived at 240 South Norwood Hill, was a learned and warm-hearted man, but intensely absent-minded. There is a story that his wife supplied him with a large stock of umbrellas as he had the habit of taking one with him to the New Church College in London where he taught and returning home without it. One morning, his stock of umbrellas exhausted, he arrived at London Bridge station and absent-mindedly took an umbrella from the luggage rack, to be confronted by the angry owner who asked if he was in the habit of appropriating other people’s property. Returning that evening, he remembered to collect his umbrellas, all six of them. Boarding the train at London Bridge he found himself sitting opposite the angry gentleman of the morning, who remarked: “Ah, sir, I see you have had a profitable day”!

A leading lay member of the church in its early years was Colonel Samuel Bevington J.P., a businessman who had commanded the Third Volunteer Battalion of the Queen’s Regiment. He was the first Mayor of Bermondsey when metropolitan boroughs were established under the Local Government Act 1888. He lived in Sevenoaks and would travel to church on horseback or in his carriage and pair. He was well known for his philanthropy and when he died it was said of him that he was “…a man whose truly Christian character manifested itself in a life of benevolence commanding the highest regard of all who knew him.” There is a statue of Samuel Bevington in Tooley Street near Tower Bridge. A lovely tribute was paid to Bevington by Father Murnane, parish priest of the Roman Catholic Church at Dockhead. Praising Bevington’s philanthropy he said that “He gave what is more precious and valuable than money to a busy man, he gave his time, thought, care, personal service, gave it ungrudgingly and cheerfully.”

Between the wars the society prospered under the pastorate of the Rev. H. Gordon Drummond, who was minister from 1929 to 1946. During the period electric light was installed for the first time and a wooden stage was constructed in the meeting room beneath the church. The stage was used, particularly for Sunday School concerts, right up until 1987 when the building was sold.

The church was badly damaged by a flying bomb in July 1944 and Sunday services were held at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Prince in Anerley Hill. One of Mr.Drummond’s last acts before his retirement was to design a new chancel window to replace the one destroyed by enemy action. The, window, preserved in the present complex of flats, contains in stained glass the text: “Thine, O Lord, is the Greatness and the Power and the Victory.”

After a few years without a regular minister, the Rev. Claud Presland was appointed in 1950. Under his inspiration the society prospered with greatly increased Sunday attendances. Records for 1958 show that over 60 children attended the Sunday School. There were activities on every night of the week and on several afternoons as well. Mr. Presland was minister for over thirty years and in retirement he still preached occasionally at the successor church in West Wickham. He died in 2002.

In 1970 the Anerley society amalgamated with the Camberwell society (founded in 1864), whose premises were sold, and thenceforth became known as the South London Society. By this time the large, elderly building was becoming a burden and Mr. Presland even expressed the wish that it be made the subject of a compulsory purchase order! An illustrated article about the church appeared in “Concrete Quarterly” in 1971. The files reveal some amusing correspondence between Mr. Presland and the editor in which the latter said he would resign if the Department of the Environment listed the building. They did, but he did not resign! Listing made it impossible to sell the church for many years. In 1981 a piece of concrete, removed from the church during roof repairs, was sent to the Chalk Pits Museum at Amberley in West Sussex, which already had a photograph of the church. It is preserved in the Museum with an appropriate caption.

In April 1983 the centenary of the church was celebrated with a special commemoration service. One of the hymns sung on that occasion was the first ever used in the church. The first verse runs:-

“Oh Thou, whose own vast temple stands,
Built over earth and sea!
Accept the walls that human hands
Have raised to worship Thee.”

The building was finally sold in 1987 and the society, renamed the West Wickham New Church, acquired premises in West Wickham High Street. However, some links with Norwood remain. A few people from this area travel to West Wickham for Sunday worship. In 1988, when the Croydon Society undertook the publication of Audrey Hammond and Brian Dann’s book, “Crystal Palace – Norwood Heights: A Pictorial Record”, its chairman was Patrick Johnson (still alive and still active), a longstanding member of the Waldegrave Road church. The book makes a brief mention of the church, but I think it is a great pity that no-one ever asked Audrey Hammond to paint a picture of it.

This strange building may not be one of great beauty, but it served its worshippers well for over a hundred years and, no doubt, will continue to perform a different, but equally important, use for present and future owners for many years to come. After the publication of the “Daily Telegraph” article mentioned earlier, that newspaper printed a letter from the Rev. Claud Presland in which he quoted these words from Swedenborg:-

“In some who are not outwardly beautiful,
the spirit is well-formed, fair
and angelic.

Richard Lines

This article originally appeared in Norwood Review 128 of 1994 and has been amended. Richard Lines became Chairman of the Norwood Society in 2011 and is a member of the West Wickham New Church.

© The Norwood Society, Registered Charity 285547
https://www.norwoodsociety.co.uk/

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